That was Friday. Saturday she saw her mother, who had wanted to go shopping and then to have dinner. She picked Anna up at home, the home she’d known as a child, where here mother lived alone now, wandering through the endless rooms with swatches of new fabric for curtains or paint cards or little squares of wallpaper, preening in the gilt-framed mirrors and terrorizing Federica, the housekeeper. Anna was dressed for shopping, something women “of a certain age”, it seemed to Francesca, had been doing since Catherine Deneuve wore YSL and Roger Vivier in Belle du Jour.
“How was your week,” she asked with the same bored tone she usually employed to tell Francesca to buy a bigger car, find a husband, or become an interior decorator. Obligatory.
“Fine, really,” Francesca answered. “I went to Turin to shoot a spread for Vogue.”
“Which Vogue?” Her mother’s ears perked up at the mention of a magazine her friends actually read.
“Italia.” She could tell Anna was disappointed. In the pantheon of Vogue, Paris and America outranked Italy every time, and even though Francesca had shot covers–covers! celebrities, even–for both of those magazines, her mother’s recall was as good as her most recent piece.
“I can’t possibly understand why you had to go to Turin,” Anna continued, as if her daughter had said she’d spent the week in Novosibirsk.
“The direction was to shoot at a football arena, and dell Alpi was the only one available.” This shopping expedition was becoming exhausting and they’d not even made it to the stores yet.
“It never ceases to amaze me what passes for art these days,” Anna decried, “in my day–”
Anna had briefly been a hand model, before marrying, and referenced her modeling career, which occurred during the golden age of gloves, as frequently as possible. It was one of the reasons Francesca had seriously considered not becoming a photographer and instead, joining the circus. Or any pursuing other career of which her mother could claim no intimate knowledge.
“Mama!” she interjected. “In your day pregnant women smoked and people wore polyester.”
“Some people. Not all,” her mother rejoined.
“So where are we going today?” asked Francesca, who had just been driving toward the center of town with the hope, distant though it was, that her mother would say something like “the bar,” or “drop me off at Coin and I’ll meet you in two hours.” Instead, Anna had a laundry list of boutiques where she expected to find a sturdy pair of walking shoes, designer brand, at low cost. Somehow Anna had managed to emerge from the 1990s without ever purchasing anything and refused to believe that a pair of ladies’ shoes could cost more than 200 Euros. She also, at certain moments which Francesca both relished and abhorred, considered hostess slippers still to be the height of fashion.
Her mother had, by many counts, had an easy life. She’d grown up solidly middle class, if not wealthy, married Francesca’s father when she was young, and in doing so ascended to Milan’s privileged class. Along the way she had borne three children, two sons and a daughter, her youngest. Her husband’s death, when Francesca was only eight and when Anna herself was still a young woman, barely thirty-five, had upended her entire world. To a casual observer it would seem nothing had changed, except for the absence of a man who hadn’t been around much to begin with, and Anna was nothing if not plucky and resourceful. But her husband’s death had left her beholden to his older brother, the family patriarch and sole executor of his brother’s estate. He let Anna keep the house, provided a bi-weekly stipend equal to 75% of her late husband’s salary, but the blow dealt by Carlo’s absence was more than Anna ever could have imagined. Marco, meanwhile, doted on her children, taking them on holidays with his family and showering them with expensive gifts, providing for their education, even when Francie had wanted to go to art school instead of university, but as much as he bestowed attention on her children he ignored Anna. Marco’s wife, ten years older than Anna and Milanese aristocracy, never missed an opportunity to remind Anna of the “funny little modeling” she’d done before marriage, or to flaunt her latest treasures from Pomellato or Chopard. Letizia was a cold woman. Anna refused to bend to her sister-in-law’s tyranny.
Francesca loved her uncle Marco and even tolerated Letizia; and so constantly had to reassure Anna that a daughter’s allegiance could not be bought. Despite her prodding, Anna was proud of her daughter’s career. Francesca’s success had ensured she would never become like Anna, beholden to a man and then his family. For better or for worse, Francesca was fiercely independent, in a way her mother had never known possible. Secretly, she even believed Marco had ensured that Anna could never remarry. Acutely aware of all these complications, Francesca squired her mother around on Saturday afternoon.
They settled at Tod’s, where Anna found a pair of loafers with a sensible heel and Francesca knew the store’s manager. Years ago, she had shot a party for Diego Della Valle and he had never forgotten her work; when Tod’s shot a new campaign to lighten the brand’s stolid image, Francesca was the only photographer they’d called. She was only too happy to reciprocate the loyalty. While waiting for her mother to choose between tan and beige, Francesca absentmindedly fingered a pair of men’s driving moccasins, her thoughts wandering to Paolo’s Maserati, to a vision of him behind the wheel, all aviator sunglasses and sexy hair, windows down, doing 85 on the winding roads leading down to Rapallo. Christ. She barely knew the man and she was thinking about buying him car shoes. Maybe football players only wear trainers? she wondered. Uncharacteristically, she hadn’t noticed his shoes. Hadn’t made it that far.
“I wouldn’t even know what size,” she murmured.
“Signorina?” The salesgirl ran up to offer assistance. Anna perked up and eyed her daughter like a hawk.
“Sorry, nothing. I was just thinking out loud,” Francesca apologized.
“Who are you buying shoes for?” Anna called across the store.
“I thought these looked like Ricci,” Francesca fumbled, using her oldest brother’s pet name.
“In bright blue? Your brother?”
“Yeah, maybe not.” Francesca ambled back towards handbags, where she could avoid further suspicion.
Although the sales weren’t starting for another few weeks, the manager gave Anna the reduced price on the loafers, winking at Francesca. Anna vowed to tell all her friends what a wonderful experience she’d had at the store and Francesca wanted nothing more than to disappear into the floor. She was more than pleasantly surprised when her mother suggested stopping at a cafe for a coffee. It was a beautiful late-autumn afternoon in Milan, and it would have been a shame to waste it inside a department store.
They sat outside at a little table, both wearing sunglasses, Anna with a scarf at her throat and Francesca in a Rick Owens leather jacket.
“You’re not telling me something,” Anna said to her daughter, and Francesca smiled. She took another sip of her espresso but said nothing.
“You never do tell me anything, though,” her mother mused, “not like Ricci and Michele. I always have to pry it out of you.” She was right. When Francesca had gotten her first spread in Vogue (Italia, not Paris or America), she’d said nothing and her mother had had to hear from a friend who had read Francesca’s name in the by-line. She wasn’t sure why she did that. Growing up seeing Ricci and Michele go running to their mother with every school paper and football award they’d received had kept her from doing the same. When she was very young, she had confided her little victories in her father–pictures she’d drawn that got hung up on the classroom wall, a cookie she’d made especially for him with Federica. After he was gone, she didn’t see the point in competing with her brothers for their mother’s affection. Her father had loved them all equally, she was sure of that, even though he’d had fewer years to know Francesca, but it was their quiet, private relationship she knew neither of her brothers had had.
“And you certainly know how to pry,” Francesca answered. “What is Federica making for dinner tonight?”